A Common Sense Regulation

There are very valid reasons to be wary of adding even a single additional government regulation to the stupendous agglomeration of federal rules.

The year 2015 broke all records, as the Federal Register, Washington’s official rulebook, reached 81,611 pages, at last count, exceeding the 77,687 pages of the year before. One dreads to think of the size of the 2016 edition. It would be a proper goal to reverse the process, and all would breathe easier if by next year the size of the Register were somewhat smaller.

Yet, it would be a serious error of judgement to automatically oppose any new regulation. If a good, sensible rule comes along, it should be considered with an open mind.

Thus, we welcome the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s new Minimum Sound Requirements for hybrid and electric cars. By September 2019, such vehicles — about 530,000 of them — will have to make noise when traveling at low speeds so that pedestrians, especially those who are blind or have poor eyesight, will hear them coming. They say it could help prevent an estimated 2,400 pedestrian injuries a year. It is, as NHTSA administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind called it, a “common sense tool” for road safety.

The new rule, which had been mandated by Congress, was praised by advocates for the blind and reported on Monday in short, simple items in the media. If there was any opposition within the industry, the grumbling was not loud enough for anybody to hear.

Yet, it took almost six years for the regulation to be formulated, after it was authorized by passage of The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act in December 2010. This was partly due to the characteristically slow pace of bureaucracy. The speed at which artificial noise would be required (at faster speeds the engine and wind noise are heard like other cars), the decibel levels enabling it to be audible over competing traffic sounds, and the type of noise all had to be determined through a laborious process of legal and technical review, environmental impact studies, public hearings, and so on.

But, in fact, there was resistance to the idea. And understandably so. After all these years when the environmental lobby has fought against noise pollution, the idea of actually requiring cars to make noise was, so to speak, not so easy to hear. For automakers themselves, who have, since time immemorial, made a “quiet ride” the sine qua non of luxury driving, it likewise meant a shifting of gears.

Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk, for example, looked for a solution that would minimalize the minimum noise, and make it euphonic as well:

“I think the sensible and ideal thing long-term is to have proximity sensors that direct a pleasant sound in the direction of where somebody is walking — so therefore, it’s the least amount of noise, and it’s not annoying, and it’s only going to where it needs to go. That’s what I think is the right long-term solution.”

What pleasant noise he had in mind, he didn’t say. A clippety-clop sound, perhaps? Or the most popular ringtone of the year?

However, the law as it now stands, which says the sound must be “recognizable as a motor vehicle in operation,” would seem to proscribe such novelty.

That does not mean that the technology of quiet, or alternately, of synthetic harmonics will go to waste. The auto industry has already played with “engine-sound enhancement,” as in the fancy BMW M5 and its faux engine noises. It may not be long before the driver of an ordinary car will be able to call up sounds on demand, just for the fun of it. Like that of an F-35 stealth bomber taking off when you accelerate on the highway — audible only inside the car, of course.

Nor will the new law make the desire for a quiet ride obsolete. Whatever sounds are projected outside need not be heard inside the car. Especially, as voice control for navigation systems increases, the need for interior quiet rises. Then, too, it has crossed the mind of at least one designer to install sound walls that separate the front seat from the children-packed rear, maybe as a minivan option.

In the final analysis, common sense did prevail. Another regulation made it into the Federal Register, but it was fully justified. It will almost certainly save lives and prevent injuries. The additional noise on our roadways is a reasonable price to pay.